The National’s new Edward II is likely to be a Marmite production: you’ll either love it or loathe it. If you don’t like classic plays to be messed with, you’ll probably hate it. But I saw Joe Hill-Gibbins’ staging along with a 19-year-old, who was thrilled, gripped and, he confessed, scared by the sinister brutality exposed in the play. It’s young, it’s vivid and it’s raw. Hill-Gibbins is an associate artist at the Young Vic and he brings with him an aesthetic familiar at that theatre: irreverent and anachronistic. He treats Christopher Marlowe’s 16th-century play as if it were written yesterday, the work of a young, audacious, unorthodox mind. This Edward II hurtles, with the lurid quality of a nightmare, from royal pageantry to savage civil war.
His production spills off the huge Olivier stage into the auditorium. When the newly crowned Edward recalls his beloved favourite from banishment, Kyle Soller’s Gaveston makes a swaggering entrance through the stalls: easy to see how this cocky, sensual upstart has John Heffernan’s frail, whimsical king under his thumb; easy to see too why the barons loathe him. And while the production makes plain that they are lovers, it also, wisely, doesn’t make this the issue of the play. The nobles here despise Gaveston because he is arrogant, an outsider (American here), distracts the king and stands between them and power.
The anarchy of the staging reflects the bloody chaos unleashed in the play once the fragile power structure breaks down. Edward’s throne sits centre stage, but behind it, the castle, represented by stage flats, looks flimsy and unreal. The vast, murky recesses of the stage are exposed; conspiratorial scenes are hidden, filmed and projected on two giant screens; characters wear a mix of medieval and modern costumes, as if the 21st century had crashed into the past.
There’s certainly far too much concept here: the production feels overloaded, bitty and confusing in places, the video streaming is overdone and becomes distracting, there is excessive excess. But what the staging conveys brilliantly is an intense sense of jeopardy: it feels urgent, angry and unstable.
And at the centre of the whirlwind is an excellent, nuanced performance from Heffernan. His Edward is mesmerising: capricious, arrogant but also deeply poignant, a man who arrives at wisdom too late. There’s fine work too from Vanessa Kirby as Queen Isabella and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as the usurper Mortimer. It’s wild ride: inspired one moment, infuriating the next, dull never.